It is certainly an oversimplification to say that running a business in October 2020 is not easy. The pandemic, social unrest and the political climate have put pressures on organizations of all shapes and sizes from owner-operated businesses to non-profits to publicly traded companies. Uncertainty, reduced demand and supply chain pressures have impacted business performance. The chaotic pace, unfamiliar work practices and home life challenges have put great pressure on employees and have tested their ability to balance personal concerns with professional demands. Simply put these are tough times.
During these challenging times we have observed first-hand how organizations transitioned to remote environments, worked hard to establish a sense of operational normalcy and are now grappling with a multitude of return to office policies. It is nothing short of impressive how these organizations embraced the challenge as if it was just another important project.
Resilience and diligence enabled them to maintain a laser focus on serving customers. For example, a community bank processed more PPP loans in six weeks than they typically might handle in nine months. Compassion and empathy helped keep employees safe and allowed them to tend to personal situations in a flexible manner. In another example, the CEO of a construction contractor led a town hall meeting to generate ideas on how to help families handle the challenges of virtual or hybrid education for their young children. Planning and organization facilitated the ability of these organizations to respond and adapt to the day-to-day challenges of running businesses in a chaotic environment; many organizations sharpened their communications plans including daily leadership team huddles, action teams to address priorities, and weekly organization wide town halls.
Where we have seen the wheat separate from the chaff is in how CEOs and their leadership teams are actually leading (not managing). There are a number of attributes that set these leaders apart.
• Balance: Great leaders are able to effectively balance empathy with a meticulous focus on running the business. They recognize that all employees including their leadership team colleagues need empathy and sometimes forgiveness for missteps. But they are also careful not to become over empathetic and lose sight of continually and diligently evaluating the environment, establishing and refining plans and processes, and focusing on the metrics that drive the business.
• Foresight: Great leaders get beyond a reaction-only mode and recognize that remote interaction can lead to missed cues and insights. They build the necessary structures to operate in times like these such as quick reaction teams, effective delegation to the next level down and time for senior teams to brainstorm and interact informally. They also work hard to evolve their mindsets and help their colleagues do the same so that as a leadership team they are able to think more strategically about how to help their organizations emerge better and stronger. One CEO continually reminds his team to fight stagnation of thought and action – ‘let’s make sure we are solving today’s problems with a new perspective rather than with old ways of thinking.’
• Expectations: Great leaders double down on setting and managing expectations. They recognize that providing clarity of expectations among themselves as a leadership team and throughout the organization will minimize mistakes and reduce anxiety. Some leaders take the extra minute or two to check for understanding – ‘does that make sense’ or ‘why don’t you repeat that back to me’ – to enhance clarity. Accountability is a big part of managing expectations. This is not a ‘gotcha game’ especially during a crisis; it’s more about follow through, anticipating challenges and need for support and checking in on progress.
• Development: Great leaders are ruthless about emerging from the crisis better and stronger and recognize that individual and team development are essential elements of this mantra. While taking time for training or team development may be difficult, great leaders deploy pragmatic approaches to development. One CEO suggested that he tries to make every discussion with his direct reports focus on substantive business issues AND the development that a particular leader needs. Another leadership team makes sure that it spends some time at monthly leadership team meetings to check in on how the team is doing – ‘what could we be doing as a team to stay more in sync’ or ‘are we addressing our most important issues in a productive manner.’
Leading in 2020 will be studied for generations and there is no doubt that many organizations with the best intentions (including the ones suggested above) will struggle to survive but it is clear to us that maintaining a balanced approach will improve the odds.